Psalm 72: Justice, Poverty, and Other Things
Irony and Politics
William Henry Harrison was the last president born as an English subject before the American Revolution. A native of Virginia, he attended college with the intent of studying medicine, but opted to join the army before finishing his degree. President John Adams took note of Harrison’s exemplary service in the Indian Wars of the Northwest Territories and, in 1801, appointed him governor of the Northwest Territories (now Indiana and Illinois). Harrison later fought in the Battle of the Thames River during the War of 1812. He went on to become a congressman and the ambassador to Colombia before running with John Tyler on the Whig Party ticket in the presidential election of 1840.
Much to the horror of the political establishment, Harrison and Tyler campaigned in a vigorous style considered unseemly in their era. They used Harrison’s nickname, Tippecanoe, which he had earned during a brutal Indian War campaign at Tippecanoe Creek, and concocted the campaign slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler, too. Harrison and Tyler held boisterous rallies during which they handed out free bottles of hard cider housed in little log cabin-shaped bottles. Their tactics, however controversial, were successful, and on March 4, 1841, Harrison was sworn in as the ninth U.S. president.”
It was during the inaugural address that things began to go wrong. On a horribly, wintry day complete with a snowstorm, Harrison “delivered the longest inaugural address in history, which may have been his undoing. This first presidential speech, delivered on a bitterly cold March morning, clocked in at one hour and 45 minutes. Harrison went to bed at the end of inauguration day with a bad cold that soon developed into a fatal case of pneumonia. Some historians have claimed that a case of hepatitis may also have contributed to his demise.” Thus, Harrison served the shortest term in office, a mere thirty-two days, most of which was spent trying to recover from the illness brought on by his excessive and record setting presidential speech.
Our text this morning holds some similarity to a presidential speech in that Psalm 72 is a declaration most likely, written for the inauguration of a Davidic king in Jerusalem, edited during the Captivity in the sixth century and directed at the office of king, not any one specific person (Mays 1994, 236). It is “…both traditional and socio-cultural probability [which] would suggest that this psalm…represents how the dynasty itself wished to be understood” (Houston 1999, 344).
I think that is an important idea, that this is how the Davidic dynasty wished to be remembered. It is important because it says to the people, “this is who we should be.” The stories of the kings from Saul to Zedekiah in the north and Jehoiachim in the south are stories of men being given the task of becoming vassal rulers under the leadership of God. The understanding of how this works goes back to the story of Saul and Samuel when God gave in to the pleading of the Israelite people to have a king. The king acetd as the implementer of God’s justice which would be relayed to him through the prophets. For example, Samuel as the man of God would hear from God that things were to be done a certain way and Saul was tasked with making that happen. In this understanding, the king of Israel is really a ‘prince’ under the true ruler, Adonai. Another way of saying this would be, “In direct contrast to the autocracy of oriental despotism the Old Testament kingship is subject to the statutes of God for the execution of which the king is responsible to his divine Lord.” (Weiser 1962, 503) Thus, the kings would want to be remembered as those who lived into this role well as ‘defender of the people’ and ‘executor of the Lord’s justice and righteousness’ which leads to the country being at shalom with itself and God. As one theologian puts it, “The Hebrew king lives under the scrutiny of God, and if he rules with justice and righteousness, the troubles of the poor will cease and the whole of God’s people will prosper.” (Buttrick 1955, 379)
This leads us to ask the question, “What does this look like?” or better still “how did the people understand the role of king?” It was a matter of the king living in the righteousness of God according to the covenant God has made with Israel in the Torah.
“Since the standard of judgment is the covenant law of God, ‘righteousness’ can acquire the sense of ‘behaviour in conformity with the covenant requirements’, bringing about the possibility that right covenant standing can be observed in ordinary behaviour. In addition, the judge, or king, must conform to a different sense of righteousness: he must try cases fairly, i.e. he must be true to the law and/or the covenant, must condemn evil, show no partiality, and uphold the cause of the defenceless.”
The righteousness of the king is in essence, a mirror-image of the righteousness of God, which is promised to the people of God in their need for protection and to those individual members who depend on his assistance. (Weiser 1962, 503) This sovereignty belongs to Adonai, and all the Psalmist wishes and claims for the king is a murky reflection of the heavenly reign (Mays 1994, 238). This keeps the weak from becoming prey to the mighty. “For the expansion of the king’s power is motivated in vv.12-15 by righteousness and compassion for the weak whom he shall deliver from the pressure of violence” as the earthly representative of God on earth because this is what God feels and this is what the person occupying the office of earthly ruler is expected to live by in ‘regard for the life and dignity of the individual human being’ creating a bond between those who have been cared for and the king who cares for them (Weiser 1962, 504). This is what brings about peace in the kingdom and this is regarded as righteousness.
Getting into the passage
With that in mind, we come to the Psalm itself. The ‘righteousness’ term used here in this passage is a term for ‘world order’ with the central idea being a righteous king offers “justice for the poor, their deliverance from exploitation” specifically to be enacting “measures to remedy the effect of oppression put in hand by kings or high officials” (Houston 1999, 346). It was the place of the king to make justice and righteousness his first and organizing responsibility on which all else depended” (Mays 1994, 236). This saving justice and righteousness for the helpless is the definitive mark of the reign of God, that which signifies the one who is the lord of all the world, an idea common among the prophets of Israel in the eighth century BCE and following. (Mays 1994, 236)
The idea is that the king is responsible for distributing the ‘shalom’, or well-being, of God from the deity to all of the people. Remember, the king is to be the conduit, the channel through which God’s blessing made its way to the people. This is largely due to the common belief at the time that the king, any king in that time period, spoke for the deity or deities of the land. When the king said, ‘thus says our gods or goddesses’, the people assumed it must be true due to their being elevated, apparently by the gods themselves to the throne. Throughout the Old Testament stories, we see that the people of Israel followed in the religious and social mistakes of the kings, in spite of warnings to the contrary by generation after generation of prophets.
Yet there is an ideal, a king that the people could follow after if that ruler could accept his place as one who engages in and creates the expectation that the people engage in the righteousness and justice of God. That is a king who by example, shows the people what it means to be a people who live by these things. Notice the desire of Psalmist, and by extension, the nation’s prayer, “God, give your judgments to the king. Give your righteousness to the king’s son.” In other words, show the king what leads us to a life of shalom, well-being so we can know how you want us to live. Why?
The psalmist answers saying,
Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out,
the poor, and those who have no helper.
He has compassion on the weak and the needy;
he saves the lives of those who are in need.
He redeems their lives from oppression and violence;
their blood is precious in his eyes.
This is not a declaration of what the king has done (we see the stories of the Old Testament that the kings fall far short), but this is the role of the king as it should be, the ideal king if he listened to the righteousness and justice of God and live in that way. Notice who benefits most, who is protected: those in greatest need. Those who are needy, poor, those who have no deliverer, the weak, those who are under oppression and violence. These are the ones that God would have the king, and by extension, his kingdom, deliver and have compassion on, redeem and save because “their blood is precious” in the eyes of the greater King, the King of Heaven.
This is why, I believe, the writer of Luke has Jesus read the prophet Isaiah in chapter four saying,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is about, in large part, what a just rule looks like. (Houston 1999, 346)
The why question
So now we have to ask ourselves a few questions, “Why did people write this down, why did they feel the need to words to this, or better yet, why tell this story, this way?”
People wrote this down to remember that the poor of their country – those who are needy, poor, those who have no deliverer, the weak, those who are under oppression and violence – needed a champion and that champion was supposed to be their king, a king who acted as God would act on their behalf. The people wanted a reminder to read with each king and each holiday feast and every other occasion that these words were read, a reminder of what a land of shalom, well-being, was to look like. That it was a place where those who were in need and cried out would be heard and rescued.
If this is the answer to the why question, what do we do with it? How do we respond?
It seems to me that despite what many people may do to say otherwise, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, the God of the Jews and the Christians, is the same God. The God we are speaking of is one who cares for and answers those in need and calls us through the prophets, the writers, the teachings of the Torah, and the teachings of Jesus to be a people who in his name become deliverers to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, depressed, unimpressed, stressed, detested, and just plain forgotten about. If we are what we claim to be, ‘little Christs’, our objective is an emulation of the flesh and the spirit of Jesus. Ultimately, love of God and love of neighbor, all our neighbors – red and yellow, black and white as the song says, becomes our reason for being, that the hands and feet of Jesus may continue to find their way to love and serve those that God would continue to love and serve through us.
Barbiero, Gianni. “The Risks of a Fragmented Reading of the Psalms: Psalm 72 as a Case in Point.” Edited by Jürgen van Oorschot, & Jan Christian Gertz. Journal of Old Testament Science (Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft) (DeGruyter) 120, no. 1 (2008): 67-91.
Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter’s Bible: Psalms and Proverbs. Vol. 4. 12 vols. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1955.
Houston, Walter J. “The King’s Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72.” Biblical Interpretation 7, no. 4 (Oct 1999): 341-367.
Jacobson, Rolf. Working Preacher: Commentary on Preaching Series on Psalms. Jun 11, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270 (accessed Jun 06, 2017).
Mays, James Luther. Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Weiser, Artur. The Psalms. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.
Willgren, David. “Psalm 72:20: A Frozen Colophon?” Journal of Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature) 135, no. 1 (2016): 49-60.
 Luke 4:18-19